Novelist as a Vocation

Ya know when a book might not be the best thing ever written but it’s the perfect book for you at that very moment? That’s what Haruki Murakami’s Novelist as a Vocation was for me this weekend. I read this thing with righteous fury as for the first time in years I sat in a quiet room—from a cabin perched on a bluff overlooking a wild and roaring ocean—and gobbled up the whole thing in a day.

Why haven’t I read a whole book in forever? And why was it this one that caught my eye?

Well, here’s the thing; Murakami writes about how he became a novelist and what his daily routine is and I’m a big sucker for this stuff. Although it’s worth noting that I’m not a rabid Murakami fan, as I find his novels way too slow and I always want something with a much quicker step. But I still found this book hypnotic. Sure, it’s a rambling, unfocused thing and I kinda disagree with huge chunks of it but that’s besides the point. When Murakami writes about the discipline required to write novels then I am 100% here for it sign me up let’s go.

As I was reading Murakami’s book I realized that I’ve trained myself for a certain kind of writing: short, tiny things that are self-contained. They only take an hour or two to write as I’m so focused on the production of writing (getting a blog post or newsletter out into the world) that I tend to ignore what these things might be if I gave them a bit more time. Writing for me is a rushed, hurried thing; something to be done on a plane or at the back of a cafe. My writing is frantic, sporadic, infrequent. But Murakami? Slow, back-achingly slow. And constant, every day, without fail.

I’ve moaned about this before:

I’ve treated my writing like this: as a hobby, not a job. I’ve treated it all so very lightly, being caught up in the hubbub of the design and engineering worlds that I forget that those are things I do for rent money but the writing is who I am...

Murakami’s book opens up these anxieties again. Kind of.

My point is that he takes his damn time to write a novel. Huge, great seeping buckets of time. The oceans will boil and this bluff will fall into the ocean but Murakami doesn’t care. Murakami has barely finished writing chapter one. The heat death of the universe will roar passed and Murakami won’t blink an eye.

Through this book, Novelist as a Vocation, he talks about his relationship with time, how he cloisters himself away and lets the passage of it wash over him and his work like a river polishing a stone. There’s no rush to hit the publish button today! No flashing lights and urgent sirens calls warning him that these words need to see daylight any time soon! No editor or collaborator stealing away his attention and his focus! All that exists is the writing.

I look at Murakami’s work—and perhaps this very idealized version of himself he’s portraying—and I see myself addicted to the little green publish button. I rush my writing, which makes it clumsy. I hit ‘publish’ at the expense of the writing itself. Not every thought needs to be published, or every word spoken, but that’s sort of how I treat my writing. And maybe that’s not great!

There’s a moment when Murakami talks about his novel-writing approach: he’ll write 1600 words a day (woof) and then he’ll just write that novel from start to finish without any rewrites. Characters half way through his first draft will get renamed, reorganized, reshuffled. The plot and tone and shape of the novel will unravel and then break. Dogs will disappear around a corner and reemerge as cats. Nothing makes a lick of sense. But that’s not the point. Heck, good writing isn’t even the point of the first draft. That’s for the second draft. After the first, he’ll put away his manuscript for a week or two. There’s no rush. Then, when he returns, he find a confusing, bewildering manuscript. Something he doesn’t recognize. The book has transformed in his desk drawer but Murakami has given this thing so much time that he now knows what it ought to be. Letting time pass over the work is almost as important as doing the work itself.

So I envy Murakami. Not for his novels or his fame or his international bestselling success or even for the way that he writes, but for the way he approaches time and uses it—just like any other tool—to get great writing done.